Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Truth Behind Beautiful Ruins


From Joe Viger:

My father, Richard Viger, worked for the BMRY for over 40 years. The Berlin Mills Railway was the connection between Berlin, NH's pulp and paper mills and outside carriers like the Boston & Maine, Grand Trunk or Canadian National. Raw materials in and finished product out.

My dad wasn't an engineer as most folks assume when I mention he worked on the railroad. Rather he was a member of the train crew. Brakeman or conductor, sometimes yard master. He retired from the railroad as superintendent.

I remember being a kid when these new box cars became part of the railway. They were bright neon green with a big white logo and I would see them all the time when my dad would treat me to a quick ride on the train or take me to the railroad carshop to change the oil in our family's Buick. Today this boxcar sits on an unused track behind the old mill research building near the Northern Forest Heritage Park in Berlin, NH.


When I was born, I was given a family name and joined the ranks of "Joe's" that included my uncle and my paternal and maternal grandfathers. My dad's father also worked for the BMRY. In the image below, my grandfather, Joe Viger, is on the right. Ernie Gagnon is on the left. Ernie was one of my dad's best friends and never walked into our house without a MARS bar for me.

These images are from a great website called Beyond Brown Paper. It features vintage photos of life surrounding the Berlin, NH, paper mills. As it turns out, you can find photos of both of my grandfathers on Beyond Brown Paper. Joseph Ruel, my mother's father, was a millwright at the Brown Company Paper Mill for many years. If you aren't familiar with the term millright, think MacGyver. Millwrights are more than mechanics or carpenters. They are craftsman who keep mills running by leveraging the skills of multiple trades to shape wood, steel and whatever else is needed to keep machines running.

Like most New England paper mills, the Berlin mills are mostly gone now. The Cascade mill is still standing and last I heard was running small batches of paper with imported pulp. Much of the Burgess Mill has been removed and included the demolition of the mill's smokestacks in the fall of 2007.

The town has paid a high price for the downfall of New England paper production. Berlin quickly became a favored location for prison development and there are both state and federal prison on the outskirts of town now. There is work being done to possibly redevelop the Burgess mill site as a BioMass Energy project. That is, burning wood to make electricity. This creates hope because when the mill closed it wasn't just the millworkers who took a hit. Folks felt it up and down the food chain of the paper industry: loggers, truck drivers, mechanics, oil and gas companies, chainsaw salespeople, safety equipment manufacturers, insurance folks... well, you get the picture. I remember reading that the economic impact even reached to Southern New England when the mill finally closed because of the nature of the industrial products supply chain.

While those of us who contribute to the Backside of America work hard to capture visual beauty in the decay and ruin of old factories, buildings and things, let's make sure we have good thoughts for towns like Berlin. They are full of hard-working folks living good lives. They aren't just working grunts, but often highly skilled and specialized craftsmen. Their work is more than a job and, in many cases, a legacy that is generations old.

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